Where the Politicking About bin Laden Should Begin

by R. Hurst on May 3, 2011

in Politics

I don’t think we have yet seen the beginning of the political debate regarding the killing of bin Laden. The predictable and idiotic line from the most ardent on the right was that the President made it all about himself. That he behaved as though he alone was responsible for the killing of Osama bin Laden. This is nonsense and it is obvious that those who use this line of attack are partisan hacks who wait to know what to think until the great Rush has spoken. To these I would simply ask: What language should the President him/herself use to refer to actions taken and decisions made by the President? I would assert that the words I and me are more than appropriate for the President to use when referring to his/her decisisons and the actions that his/her administration are directly responsible for. After all, if the mission would have failed towards whom would the right direct its anger? Yes, the President. So accept that if all had gone wrong that the same person who would have been blamed gets some credit when nearly everything goes right.

We have heard whispers of a more insidious and disheartening type of credit being taken however, and it is the torturers and the unitary executive advocates who are claiming credit for the potentiality that some of the relevant information leading to the hit on bin Laden was extracted by torture. These sadists would then have you jump to the conclusion that without torture we would not have had success in killing bin Laden and subsequently that torture is not just justifiable – but necessary.

Now I know that we cannot directly say that the information gleaned by torture did not play a role in these recent events. However, I feel confident in saying that we could have come to the same point (maybe even sooner) without torture. Here is why – torture yields numerous false and bad leads. How many thousands of man hours were used pursuing bad information? We’ll never know. I must acknowledge that the opposite is also true– without torture one might still extract false confessions and waste time in their pursuit – but I am sure that the scale is significantly different. Christoper Hitchens points out in his now famous Vanity Fair article that interrogators were able to get a man to confess that he was a hermaphrodite.

So while it is now currently rumored that the torture of KSM resulted in the extraction of the nickname of the now infamous courier (information that was later corroborated by another source – who revealed that he was given an al-Qaeda promotion from said courier – and an actual name actually revealed by yet another later source which led to a tapped phone call that revealed the sources position which led to the surveillance that led to the now well known compound), we should not be so quick as to suggest any sort of causality. We tortured and had success therefore torture results in successful outcomes. This is faulty reasoning and ignores the thousands of other problems that are created when we embrace torture as a society. Christopher Hitchens sums up the two opposing arguments – the argument for torture:

This group regards itself as out on the front line in defense of a society that is too spoiled and too ungrateful to appreciate those solid, underpaid volunteers who guard us while we sleep. These heroes stay on the ramparts at all hours and in all weather, and if they make a mistake they may be arraigned in order to scratch some domestic political itch. Faced with appalling enemies who make horror videos of torture and beheadings, they feel that they are the ones who confront denunciation in our press, and possible prosecution. As they have just tried to demonstrate to me, a man who has been waterboarded may well emerge from the experience a bit shaky, but he is in a mood to surrender the relevant information and is unmarked and undamaged and indeed ready for another bout in quite a short time. When contrasted to actual torture, waterboarding is more like foreplay. No thumbscrew, no pincers, no electrodes, no rack. Can one say this of those who have been captured by the tormentors and murderers of (say) Daniel Pearl? On this analysis, any call to indict the United States for torture is therefore a lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilization and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out, and ultimately to bring it down. I myself do not trust anybody who does not clearly understand this viewpoint.

And against:

Against it, however, I call as my main witness Mr. Malcolm Nance. Mr. Nance is not what you call a bleeding heart. In fact, speaking of the coronary area, he has said that, in battlefield conditions, he “would personally cut bin Laden’s heart out with a plastic M.R.E. spoon.” He was to the fore on September 11, 2001, dealing with the burning nightmare in the debris of the Pentagon. He has been involved with the sere program since 1997. He speaks Arabic and has been on al-Qaeda’s tail since the early 1990s. His most recent book, The Terrorists of Iraq, is a highly potent analysis both of the jihadist threat in Mesopotamia and of the ways in which we have made its life easier. I passed one of the most dramatic evenings of my life listening to his cold but enraged denunciation of the adoption of waterboarding by the United States. The argument goes like this:

1. Waterboarding is a deliberate torture technique and has been prosecuted as such by our judicial arm when perpetrated by others.

2. If we allow it and justify it, we cannot complain if it is employed in the future by other regimes on captive U.S. citizens. It is a method of putting American prisoners in harm’s way.

3. It may be a means of extracting information, but it is also a means of extracting junk information. (Mr. Nance told me that he had heard of someone’s being compelled to confess that he was a hermaphrodite. I later had an awful twinge while wondering if I myself could have been “dunked” this far.) To put it briefly, even the C.I.A. sources for the Washington Post story on waterboarding conceded that the information they got out of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was “not all of it reliable.” Just put a pencil line under that last phrase, or commit it to memory.

4. It opens a door that cannot be closed. Once you have posed the notorious “ticking bomb” question, and once you assume that you are in the right, what will you not do? Waterboarding not getting results fast enough? The terrorist’s clock still ticking? Well, then, bring on the thumbscrews and the pincers and the electrodes and the rack.

I, for one, stand with the second group. I strongly believe that America, as a light on a hill, has the obligation to avoid the temptation to ignore the institutions, regimes and frameworks that promote the dignity of human kind. What kind of message do we send when we believe our citizens are entitled to certain international protections that we ourselves do not grant the citizens of other nations? Some might respond by suggesting that we are dealing with non state actors who are not party to these same institutions, regimes and frameworks. I would simply reply that the “they do it too” defense does not work – somebody needs to stand for something. And the fact that “they“ don’t doesn’t mean that we should. The they to whom which we so often refer in this situation also don’t afford their women certain freedom and rights – does that justify us in restricting the rights of women here? Of course not. The only matter of importance is what we have agreed to. Has the U.S. long considered the waterboarding and torture of her soldiers a war crime? Yes – end of discussion. If it is a war crime for them it is a war crime for us.

As we go forward we may learn that torture played some small but significant role in the intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden (although many high ranking officials have already denied this). But the facts do not change. This issue goes to the heart of who we are as a people. Do we abide by our own rules or do we not? If we do not – then what other rules are not worth abiding by? If the rule of law matters not in the United States of America then we are not. We are no longer the nation that was established by our forefathers. The nation that put those who massacred us on trial from the very beginning. The nation that made the perpetrators of heinous crimes in the Second World War (and other wars of large and small consequence) stand trial and account for their atrocities. We are a nation of laws. The moment we dismiss the importance of our own law is the moment we let our light go dim.

Our post 9/11 whatever it takes attitude made it possible for democratic leaders to pass law allowing the government to peek into our personal lives without warrant, to render people to secret prisons and to torture. We must not let this success bring about more future failure of policy. We must not let these events embed even more deeply the soul corrupting political ideologies that render America unaccountable and inhumane.

[LATE UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan sums up all the information that debunks the emerging myth that torture had anything to do with the killing of bin Laden. See the New York Times breakdown of the hunt for bin Laden. See Donald Rumsfeld's quote that torture had nothing to do with recent events.]

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